Hits in the Heartland

Sedgwick County, Kan., has developed a big-city Web site to inform and interact with its residents.

by / July 31, 1998
Sedgwick County, Kan., doesn't come to mind as a technological hub of software development and electronic commerce the likes of Redmond, Wash., Mountain View, Calif., Austin, Texas, or Stamford, Conn. However, that doesn't mean that the county, and local governments like it, can't put the Internet to good use.

Home to the city of Wichita in south-central Kansas, Sedgwick County covers about 1,000 square miles and has a population of 430,000 people. Although the county faces the same problems as other state and local governments -- crime, pollution and shrinking budgets -- it is trying to do more with less yet still provide service to its taxpaying residents.

With that in mind, Sedgwick County supervisors approved a new Web site -- the Sedgwick County Information Network -- to inform the county's residents of events in the area and be a clearinghouse of information for travelers, students and others interested in this Kansas community. Last October, a slick, professional Web site was launched that encourages residents to interact with the county and learn about what is going on in the community. "The community in general feels more involved and not like we're being so secretive," said Web designer and former law enforcement officer Sean McNeill. "It's a more citizen-efficient way of doing business."

Getting It Together

Sedgwick County had an original Internet presence, but each department was responsible for designing and maintaining a series of individual Web sites that didn't fit into the overall plan. Each department posted information that was relevant to its mission, but that resulted in a duplication of efforts and left much to be desired from the users' standpoint. "The navigation was difficult in terms of jumping from one department to the next, and the look and feel was different depending on the site you were on," McNeill said. "It was agreed that the site had to have an overall general look and feel. I believe this was important for navigation and aesthetics. While this is still a standard we follow today, I firmly believe each department should have a unique identity of their own."

Sedgwick County redesigned the site and is contracting with NetVision Technologies, a local Internet service provider (ISP) that supplies the county with 50MB of disk space for the site files. The county pays the ISP $90 per month for unlimited e-mail accounts and common gateway interface (CGI) scripting to allow for more dynamic Web pages. "Eventually, Sedgwick County Information Services will support public-access Internet-information servers through a T1 in-house," McNeill said. "This will, of course, eliminate the need for outsourcing hosting services."

One of the most exciting aspects of the redesigned county site is the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department's home page. Developed by McNeill, Project Team Leader Greg Faber and Client Support Manager Art Larsen, the sheriff's site offers residents a valuable tool for fighting crime in their neighborhoods. The department has posted crime statistics on the site, which gets used extensively by students and faculty at nearby Wichita State University.

In addition to the statistics on drunken-driving arrests and traffic accidents, the names, addresses and crimes committed by registered sex offenders residing in the county are available online. The site also provides the names and photos of the 10 most-wanted suspects in the county. The Java-based top-10 list allows county residents to scroll through a list of full-color suspect photos and their alleged crimes. Sheriff Mike Hill insists the department updates the most-wanted list every month, and officers immediately supply information to McNeill to post on the site when a significant crime occurs or a suspect is apprehended.

What's Next?

Future plans for the site include a home page for the county animal-control division aimed at teaching children to take care of their pets.

The information systems department is working to make county employment opportunities available online in Acrobat PDF format, so potential applicants can easily download the essential paperwork.

Meanwhile, many governments are turning to the Internet to post information about grants and loans available to organizations and small businesses. However, Sedgwick County is also working on a plan to make the county's request for quotes and request for proposals available online in the PDF format.

McNeill said he would like to allow companies to submit proposals online, but two things stopped that service: It wanted to limit "impulse" submissions, and the county didn't feel comfortable with the current digital-signature technology that would "sign" proposals, he said.

Sedgwick County's Web site is a fine example of public information technology funds put to online use. However, not all local governments can afford to keep a full-time, professional Web designer on staff. The population of a county plays a major role in whether to employ a designer, because smaller counties are likely to have limited IT resources, and fewer residents in more rural counties are likely to make inquiries on the Internet. The cost to Sedgwick County includes McNeill's salary and about $8,000 to $10,000 in computer equipment and software.

While McNeill and his colleagues would like to continue pushing technology to the limit, he knows there is only so much Sedgwick County residents want and can handle from their local government. "Although there are public expectations that information technologies will allow government to improve operations and services delivered, these hopes are tempered by the failure of several recent, widely publicized modernization efforts," McNeill wrote in his personal notes. "The Internet magnifies everything. Until society becomes more familiar and trusting of the Internet, the services provided must conform to what is publicly acceptable."

Corey Grice is a San Francisco-based writer.

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